As I gear up for my next field season in Senegal, a feeling of nostalgia mixed with trepidation creeps up on me. I will be leaving in a few weeks on the three day voyage to the villages in southeastern Senegal where I work. Once there I will meet with community leaders in small remote villages to discuss the future of their forests and what we can do together to improve that future. One of these villages where I have worked since 2010 and where these conversations is perhaps most needed, is Kharakhena.
Kharakhena has been my village away from home. I have my own hut within my family’s compound. The chief’s father says I am like one of his own children. My dear friend Gundo named her sixth child after me. When I pull into the village, either on my motorcycle or in my truck, the children run out from every corner chanting my name.
Or… at least that is how it used to be.
Kharakhena has changed. From a sleepy village of 130 people located in rural and remote southeastern Senegal, it has grown into a gold mining community of 25,000 people or more. The original family compounds are now flanked to the north by new roadside boutiques and on all other sides by a rapidly expanding shanty town of shelters. These small, mostly temporary, homes are made from grass, bamboo, and sheets of plastic. They house the masses of artisanal gold miners who have come to find their future (or at least a way to get by) in the gold mine of Kharakhena.
Artisanal small scale gold mining (ASGM) has been a long standing tradition in West Africa. Since colonial times, the country of Ghana has been known as the Gold Coast. Even further back during the first millennium BC, West African gold was traded in the Middle East for goods including copper, horses and salt. Gold mining throughout West African history has been a supplemental activity to agriculture during the agricultural off-season. Mining activity was generally localized, small in scale and with little technological investment. Today, these small scale mining sites still exist but now range from traditional panning in rivers and streams (particularly by women) to mechanized mining communities with bosses, security guards, and many machines.
These mining communities, like the one growing in Kharakhena, bring both benefits and costs to the original villages. The discovery of gold and the corresponding population growth inevitably result in economic growth with new shops and boutiques built to serve the miners, more vehicles and motorcycles in the village to transport goods and gold, and the increasing village size may warrant the building of a government funded school or a medical clinic. Along with these benefits come costs. Overall health decreases as mining kicks up dust, uses toxic mercury in the gold extraction process, and increase the risk of socially communicable diseases (sometimes associated with an increase in prostitution). The rapid influx of people and money also causes security problems with groups of bandits prowling the area, harassing motorists, robbing families, and even killing gold miners for their stash. The natural environment also suffers as transient gold miners are interested primarily in getting the gold and moving on to the next site, rather than using sustainable extraction methods and restoring the land.
One of the greatest risks that concerns the Chief of Kharakhena village, Saiba Keita, is the environment for children. For a small village like Kharakhena it was custom and safe to let your children run off and play throughout the village and surrounding bush, knowing that your neighbors would always be keeping an eye out. Today, as children run and play throughout the village, they are rapidly being exposed to crime, alcohol, and unsafe labor practices. As Saiba has said, they are learning things they should not learn at such young ages.
And so, as I think about how and where we go from here… Our sleepy village is no longer, but perhaps a vibrant economic hub is in it future. Saiba has been working day and night over the past year to bring safety and security back to his village with the help of the national military police force as well as a volunteer community security group. Bandits have been caught and jailed. The children’s future is looking brighter as a brand new three room school house opened for the first time this year with the support of Randgold mining corporation. And this summer we can start moving towards a brighter environmental future as well – reforestation? community managed protected areas? The choice is with the people of Kharakhena, however they envision their environmental plan. All we can do is help get the conversation going!
I know that the people, environment, and chimpanzees of Kharakhena are going through a transition, and change is never easy. I remain nostalgic for my quiet hut in a village where everyone knew my name. And my worries for the future of Kharakhena, the chimpanzee’s habitat, and the children’s safety are likely to remain for sometime. But as Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Nothing endures, but change”, we can only work to make this period of transistion at Kharakhena be one towards a brighter and more sustainable future for everyone.